Government accused of fuelling panic buying

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The Independent Online

The Government was accused of causing panic-buying of petrol yesterday, as its propaganda offensive against the fuel protesters appeared to backfire.

The Government was accused of causing panic-buying of petrol yesterday, as its propaganda offensive against the fuel protesters appeared to backfire.

While queues at filling stations lengthened and some ran dry, Tony Blair appealed to motorists to stop buying fuel needlessly, and warned that the Government would not "blow" the Treasury's cash surplus on cutting petrol duty.

Launching his strongest attack on the protesters, the Prime Minister said in a message on the Downing Street website that no responsible government could "make policy on the basis of people threatening so-called Armageddon or blocking food supplies".

But as petrol sales soared by 70 per cent in some areas, the Government staged an embarrassing U-turn by urging motorists not to panic-buy.

On Monday, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said many drivers were already keeping their tanks "fuller rather than emptier" and described such action as "obviously sensible".

Yesterday, Mr Blair said there was no reason for people to "change the pattern of their behaviour". Denying the Government had provoked queues, a Downing Street spokeswoman said there had been "serious threats of disruption", a charge denied by the People's Fuel Lobby.

David Handley, the group's chairman, said the Government had "hyped up" the situation by ignoring his pledge for no repeat of September's oil refinery blockades.

Ray Holloway, the director of the Petrol Retailers' Association, said "irresponsible" comments by ministers had caused public alarm and urged people to reject Mr Straw's advice. He said: "They are talking up anxiety. I would have to interpret some of the comments to be quite deliberate in raising anxiety levels."

The Conservatives accused ministers of fomenting a new crisis to claim "a great victory" over the protesters. A Tory spokesman said: "Everyone knows that Gordon Brown is sitting on a crock of gold."

But the Treasury stamped on City forecasts that it had a surplus of up to £20bn, as the Chancellor prepared to unveil his draft Budget next Wednesday. He is expected to offer help for hauliers and farmers, and to cut vehicle excise duty for smaller cars rather than petrol duty.

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